Lionel Shriver

Never has a virus been so oversold

Never has a virus been so oversold
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There’s nothing unprecedented about Covid-19 itself. The equally novel, equally infectious Asian flu of 1957 had commensurate fatalities in Britain: scaled up for today’s population, the equivalent of 42,000, while the UK’s (statistically flawed) Covid death total now stands at 46,000. Globally, the Asian flu was vastly more lethal, causing between two and four million deaths. The Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 also slew up to four million people worldwide, including 80,000 Britons. Yet in both instances, life went on.

What is unprecedented: never has a virus been so oversold. Why, I’d like to sign on with Covid’s agent. What a publicity budget.

In a recent Kekst CNC poll, British respondents estimated that nearly 7 per cent of the UK population has died from the coronavirus. That would be 4.5 million people. Scots supposed that more than 10 per cent of the UK population has died. That would be seven million people. Astonishingly, Americans believed that Covid has killed 9 per cent of their compatriots, or almost 30 million people! The real US total has indeed crossed the milestone of 150,000, but for pity’s sake, ‘only’ 20 million people died in the first world war.

True, your average everyman and woman are not dab hands at statistics. Nevertheless, broadcast news has bludgeoned audiences daily with Covid death totals. And a citizenry ought to have some vague notion of their country’s population. So folks convinced that in five meagre months they’ve lost a tenth of their fellows — the literal meaning of the word ‘decimate’ — need only drop a digit to realise how absurdly their bloated estimate compares with familiar figures on the news. But then, the public is never good with zeroes — a failing which treasuries in deficit count on.

Our very own Matthew Parris (many of whose columns I admire) is not immune to Covid Hyperbole Syndrome. His last column alludes to this virus ‘killing millions worldwide’, a phrase that sailed unmolested past pernickety editors and fact-checkers at this magazine. But the true worldwide death toll at the time was about 650,000.

I’d argue for improved British education in maths, except it seems Britain doesn’t do education any more. So let’s instead take those exaggerated impressions of lethality as proof of a stupendously successful propaganda campaign. The government has destroyed the country, and needs to keep ramping up the hysteria the better to keep destroying it. Boris Johnson gets a lot of stick, so it’s time to give the boy credit for once. At destroying the country he’s doing a damned fine job.

During events that in the present loom distortingly large, I’m always dubious of assertions that ‘nothing will ever be the same again’. Yet I worry that Covid-19 may have issued in a new intolerance for the nature of biology that could prove long-lasting.

When I was a kid, there was no MMR vaccine, and children were expected to get measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a matter of course. I obligingly contracted these diseases, which were unpleasant and — I now realise — far more dangerous than my parents’ blitheness would suggest.

Naturally, I’ve also contracted flu and colds throughout my life, and I’ve been resigned to the fact that these disagreeable ailments were due to contact with other people. Abstractly, I’ve known that other people could also infect me with more deadly pathogens: whooping cough, meningitis and TB to name but a few. Yet hitherto it’s never occurred to me that I should therefore wrap myself in cling film, tie a sanitary towel across my face and lock myself in a cupboard.

The more relentless these micro-managing policies of ‘social distancing’ (an expression I’ve come to loathe), mandatory masks, continued closures and capriciously restored regional lockdowns apparently on the basis of a miserable uptick of 14 extra cases, the more we relocate what had lurked far at the back of our minds to the front: other people are sources of contagion. We used to live with that fact. But this on-going risk of mixing with other human beings we’re now, apparently, to find intolerable.

I’m currently in New York, where the medical paranoia is sustained, and social life is nearly nonexistent. This week, a rarity, a couple came inside our house. They didn’t sit down, didn’t stay long, and were careful not to touch anything. When they left they were clearly relieved, and immediately doused themselves in hand sanitiser. I don’t think it’s going to be any different next summer. Google, for example, has already advised its employees to work from home for the next 12 months.

The graph of new cases in the UK roughly levelled off throughout July — but it has not plateaued at zero. The PM gives every indication that only zero will do. Thus as long as the coronavirus persists, the fearful prophylactic measures will continue. In trade for this valiant vigilance on our behalf, we merely have to sacrifice: our friends. Any new friends. All live performance — music, plays. Restaurants. All occasions, like proper weddings, funerals, birthdays and extended--family celebrations. Travel. Colleagues. Any search for love. Any moving communal experience, like festivals. Dentistry. A functional National Health Service. Oh, and the economy — and in case you need translation, that means the country, full stop.

Boris’s ‘nuclear option’ of another total national lockdown remains on the table. Why on earth? The one constructive conclusion to draw from this debacle is that long, indiscriminate national lockdowns to suppress infectious disease are a catastrophe. Yet the most horrifying consequence of Covid-19 could be that lockdown — which once applied only to prisons — becomes officialdom’s established kneejerk response to any new contagion.

There will be a new contagion, too, and a new one after that. How many times can you send the national debt soaring, devastate small business, paralyse government services — including health care — and cancel for months on end the civil liberties of an erstwhile ‘free people’? In preference to this repeated carpet-bombing, a literal nuclear option might at least get the agony over with fast.

Spectator.co.uk/lionelshriver
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